Lost in the supermarket? The role of big business in social enterprise

 

Reflecting on my visit to The Gathering I was reading over the notes I made and was struck by the prevalence given to the private sector in at least two of the workshops I attended. In the session run by Joseph Rowntree Foundation there was lots of discussion about how important it is to hold private companies to account as we try to tackle poverty in Scotland. This is particularly relevant with regards to banking, private rental sector and energy, the cost of which contribute to the poverty premium and contribute to the high cost of living which is partly responsible for poverty in the UK today.

The second session with a consideration of the private sector was a session called ‘From ‘Asking’ to ‘Earning’ – Opportunities for social enterprises to work in the world of retail’ which was run by Asda and Social Investment Scotland. The main thrust of the session was to highlight the new ‘Asda Social Enterprise Supplier Development Academy’ which will provide social enterprises the opportunity to ‘strengthen their understanding of supermarket retail and refine their commercial and marketing skills, with the potential to get their products on supermarket shelves in Scotland…or even beyond’. SIS and Asda were joined by Sylvia Douglas, the founder of MsMissMrs social enterprise who is applying to attend the academy.

asda

Without wanting to demonise the whole of the private sector I did have some concerns about the role they might play as they develop relationships with social enterprise and aired these with my CommonHealth colleagues which resulted in an interesting debate:

On the one side of the debate is a view that reflected the discussion in the JRF session I attended- that involvement of the private sector allows social enterprises to improve the private sector, promote a stronger social conscience and hold them to account in their less ethical practices. Social enterprises will also benefit from access to a large retail market, the importance of which was emphasised by Sylvia who wanted to be able to focus her attention on delivering her social mission rather than spending valuable time and energy at small scale retail events. Despite my concerns it would be disingenuous not to consider the view from social enterprise and recognise the benefits of having an higher income in order to pursue the social aims, however, at what are the implications of receiving income from working with Asda Walmart?

The worry is that the notion of social enterprise will be ‘watered down’ once multinational corporations begin to use them as a form of corporate social responsibility. Asda, part of the Walmart Corporation does not have a positive, socially aware image, particularly in relation to the working conditions of their employees (examples here and here). If people are making an educated decision to support social enterprise in their consumer behaviour there is a risk of reduced confidence in social enterprises as they begin to compromise to fit the mould of a large scale retail supplier. This has implications for the social enterprise sector as a whole as the balance between social and enterprise is seen to tip in favour of enterprise as compromises are made that undermine wider social concerns. SIS pointed to these potential compromises as a challenge for social enterprises who might have to reconsider price points, sources of their materials and possibly outsource their production activities. In making such compromises the concern is that the ‘social’ in social enterprise becomes meaningless as enterprises are drawn into the less ethical practices of big business.

If Asda were sincere in their interest in social enterprise would they instead be considering what compromises they could make to work with social enterprises, rather than the other way around? Or would we rather that big business stays totally clear of social enterprises in order to retain some of the community based, cooperative roots of social enterprise in Scotland and baulk at the idea of Asda partnering with social enterprise?

Among the many questions that the Commonhealth research programme is attempting to address, we are trying to explore how different social enterprises manage the balance between ‘social’ and ‘enterprise’ aims, and what this means for health outcomes.

Clementine Hill OConnor

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